Maybe True, Mostly Metaphor Part XXI
You know what the sign of bad travel writing is, reader? When the author keeps describing different places in the same way over and over again. When every forest is green with a lushness that radiated warmth and life and every city they visit is described as a bustling metropolis thronging with humanity and abuzz with culture. Sure, these descriptions may be accurate, but shouldn’t a writer look for what makes a city distinct and unique? What makes one location or culture on the planet singular and worth writing about? What’s the story?
The ability to spot the unique beauty that exists in every moment, every space, and inside every person is what separates exceptional travel writing from the rest.
Unfortunately for you, reader, I’m a garbage travel writer. Shanghai was a bustling city full of life. Osaka was a bustling city full of life and amazing street food. Manila was a bustling city full of life plus a psychotic public transit system. Phnom Penh was a bustling city full of life plus motorcycles. La Paz was a bustling city full of life and zebras.
Yes, the above descriptions of those cities are obscenely reductive, shallow, and narrow-minded. Almost insultingly so. And that’s obviously not an accurate description of how I truly felt about each place. But you’ll have to be patient with me, we were a little too preoccupied at the time to truly appreciate how colorful the world could be. It’s a little ironic. Growing up, I had wanted to travel the world and see every street, try every food, join every festival, all in pursuit of my lost childhood balloon. Now, I was in a stolen balloon traveling the world, but too stressed and rushed and focused to truly absorb all that we were experiencing.
Honestly, reader, recounting these stories back to you is a small way for me to dig into the recesses of my mind to try and recover those precious lost moments. Time is both a precious and a cruel thing. Memory even more so.
You have to agree with me on the memory thing, reader. How often do you remember things that are utterly pointless, random facts from a show or book or class that have no real life relevance, but you have zero mental capacity to recall the details of an appointment, or where you put your keys, or a loved one’s birthday? I can vividly remember very specific snippets of my childhood that are rather mundane, while entire periods of my life that I know were the most exotic of my life all meld into one emotional blur that becomes impossible to re-live, let alone shape into a story to share around the bar or dinner table.
Memory is a blessing and a curse, and a poor memory of places results in repetitive travel writing. And for that, I apologize. Shanghai was a bustling city full of life. Osaka was a bustling city full of life and amazing street food. Manila was a bustling city full of life plus a psychotic public transit system. Phnom Penh was a bustling city full of life plus motorcycles. La Paz was a bustling city full of life and zebras.
But enough rambling. All that’s on your mind right now is zebras, isn’t it?
Despite my flawed memories of all these wonderful places around the world, what stands out in my mental images of La Paz are the traffic zebras. Everywhere I looked as we made our way through that bustling town packed full of life, there was always a zebra. It would stand there at the corner of the street with a big sign that said PARE on one side (Spanish for stop), and GRACIAS on the other.
Even stranger, reader, the zebras weren’t real. Not that they were imaginary and existed only in my head. No, the zebras were real, but they weren’t real zebras. They were people, teenagers and young adults mostly, wearing giant zebra costumes. All day, everywhere you look in the city, there would be people in zebra costumes. Their primary job seemed to be escorting pedestrians across busy streets where few people, if any, appeared to care about traffic lights. La Paz was one of those cities where vehicle traffic ran chaotic and rampant. The zebras, I assume, were a form of vigilante civil service that protected the foot traffic of the town.
Why zebras? simple. The Zebra stripes represented the black and white lines of a crosswalk at an intersection.
And that, reader, is the most striking thing I remember about La Paz. I actually remember two things: the zebras and a note I found in an office building…
After a long, long journey with too many stops to recount here, Laurents, Elise, and I made it to La Paz, Bolivia. Our final stop on this dark ride of chasing down the criminal group of traffickers. A group that Laurents had been pursuing. A group that had been secretly watching me since my departure from Omaha and appeared to have taken Moog and Sondra. A group whose leader was married to Alice, who Elise was trying to get back.
After months, years even if you start counting from that strange day in Omaha, our plan was to end it here. This was the last city on the list Alice sent us, and we had hoped to find answers, if not Alice herself, along with Moog and Sondra.
Our plan here overall wasn’t too different than what we had been doing. Sneak in, gather information, get out. We would do it in two parts. First, only one of us would go and gather the initial data: how many doors were there, how populated was the building, how many floors, and which floors or rooms did we think had what we were looking for? Any sign of Alice inside? After that, we’d regroup and form a more precise plan that involved two of us going inside and the third close by with an escape route to the Candlewind ready. If we did find Alice, or anyone else, we’d be taking them with us this time.
Step one was me. It was simple. Walk by the building and take note of what I saw while trying to blend in.
Done. Much like the other buildings we encountered, this one was rather nondescript. It was taller than buildings in the past, which could prove problematic. It looked to be at least five floors which meant a lot of rooms to investigate. Another item of note, there was a camera aimed at the metal front door. I looked down at my phone as I walked by, hoping it was a sharp enough angle for my face to escape the camera’s view. After walking by once, I decided to take a lap around the block to get a second look. Maybe there would be a second side door, like how Elise described in Wuxi. Or an entrance from the ceiling? The buildings were pretty close to each other…
I smiled at the sprightly zebras walking pedestrians across the street as I rounded each corner of the block. After zebra number two, I reached into my bag and put on a hat while taking off my jacket. Hopefully that was enough to look different on my second pass. I waved at the fourth zebra, turned, and was back on the same street as the building.
I walked up a little slower this time, hoping to catch more details. The building was about a dozen steps up ahead. I pretended to yawn, trying to look carefree for another few steps. I came parallel to the edge of the building and stole a glance down the alley. No doors that I could see. Another four steps and I’d be in front of the main entrance.
With two steps to go, the door exploded open in front of me, hinges creaking as the heavy metal plate swung outward. I hesitated, stunned for the smallest of heartbeats, and that was all the time they needed. Two massive bodies rushed out, grabbed me with hands as big as my shoulders, and hurled me through the doorway into darkness.
“Let me explain something about the world to you, calling me a trafficker? That’s a very simplistic word.”
I was in a brightly lit office, on my knees in front of a massive oak desk. My hands were tied behind my back, but it didn’t matter because behind me was a big rifle touching the back of my head, held by one of the massive juggernauts who jumped me. In front of me, behind the giant desk, was a man who said his name was Isaac.
“I’ll forgive you, because we’ve only really met one time. I watched you drift away with my property on the outskirts of Omaha.”
Isaac was Alice’s husband, and the one in charge of this whole mess.
“Yet, from that one, short impression of me, you decide to label me a criminal and a human trafficker. But I’ll explain why your point of view is too narrow. Too reductive. You see, you’ve only heard one side of the story.”
Isaac walked around the desk to behind me. I didn’t risk turning my head to look, but I felt the cold barrel of the rifle separate from my sweaty scalp, could hear him letting the two guards out of the room. The door closed behind them.
“Stand up,” he commanded from behind me. I got one foot under me and started to rise until he grabbed my head and slammed it down onto his desk. Sparks started to fill my vision as he pressed the left side of my face down on his desk. I was back on my knees. With my head sideways, I could look up and just make out Isaac’s features. He was strong and tall, not unlike Laurents. His hand that held me down was nearly as big as the guards’ were. With his other hand, he held a gun and pointed it at me, “Let me tell you the other side of the story, and don’t interrupt.” He pushed the barrel into my face to emphasize that last point.
“I’m not a human trafficker. I do what the world needs me to do; I serve a function here in the world, just like anyone else. Well,” he paused, “I guess not like anyone else because you don’t really serve a function, do you? You haven’t done much of any good over the past year that you’ve been traipsing around the globe.” He sighed, “That’s right, nothing that you’ve been doing has been of any use, most of all the silly pictures of documents you’ve been taking at my former offices. Those are all planted. None of it has any substance or proof of anything. It’s just enough info to occupy the authorities and leave them running in circles until they’re out of resources.
“Alice tried to help you guys out, but it didn’t last long. In fact, the only message that truly was from her was when she tried to send you the money from your motorcycle she sold. That was right before I caught up with her. After you left, she ran away to Colorado, sold your bike, and tried to hide from me.” He shrugged, “Didn’t last long. I found her, brought her back, and discovered an opportunity. That’s when I started sending you those messages with the city names.”
His pressure on my head eased up a fraction, but I was still being held firmly in place. The left side of my face had started to tingle a little bit in numbness and my shoulders were aching from the odd position my tied hands put them in. Still, he continued.
“By that time, I wanted to see what you were all about. I knew you were in Seattle which, like Omaha, is a city where I have some influence. I had my contact send you a message to see if you knew how to figure it out, to see how much you knew. A few months later, you start heading West. ‘Okay,’ I start thinking, ‘maybe this kid has more information than I thought. Who is he working with?’ I knew that someone had been following my people around Asia recently and even knew the location of a few of my facilities. It was that other guy you’ve been hanging around with, Laurents.
“So, I send you some messages that I know will match up with whatever problems Laurents has been causing for me. Before that, though, I started closing up shop at each of those locations. I figured I could keep an eye on you and distract that other guy all in one go. And buy myself some time to decide what to do with you by the time you got here.
“But, that doesn’t tell you why I’m not a bad guy,” he sighed. “Do you know how terrorists in Afghanistan make money? Growing and selling opium. Poppy, actually. Do you know they sell it to cartels in Mexico? And what do those cartels do? Smuggle it into the United States to meet the peoples’ demands.”
He pulled his gun away from my head and started moving it in a circular motion, “It’s a cycle. It’s supply and demand. People buy drugs, the money goes to the terrorists who grow the drugs so they have the funding to fight more Americans. So, who in that cycle is the bad guy? Answer:” he put the gun back against my head, “everyone. But at least the terrorists have an honest view of how the world works.
“I’m no different. I’m just a servant of supply and demand, kid. You want to stop what I do? Don’t focus on me, focus on the demand that creates the need for people like me. I’m not bad, I just serve a need. You stop me, someone else will just fill the vacuum. And let me tell you, there are worse people than me in this business. I have–or, had–the Candlwind. I used to swoop in and give people hope. Because the people that work for me? They wanted an escape. You’ve seen these places, you know how hard life can get, right? Or did you just turn a blind eye to any ugly thing you saw on your way here? My workers want a way out of their trash lives. I come in and promise them escape. I even give them a beautiful, whimsical ride to their new life in a hot air balloon so they can literally see the world. ‘How magical!’ they think. No stowing away on cargo ships or being packed into trucks like cattle. I bring them out of their misery, find them a job, and in return, I hold on to their passport and they work for me until they can pay back what I spent in helping them get out. It’s simple. I paid the effort and risk it took to help them out, they work for me in return. Besides, logistics is expensive, only fair that they pay me back for my services.
“Now, does that make me a criminal? or a businessman? I’m just issuing a loan and helping people escape the slums that would consume them, otherwise. I’m meeting a need on both sides. People want to get out of their situation and find a better life. On the other hand, people from your world want pleasure and leisure on the cheap. I meet that demand. It’s a cycle, just like the drugs in Afghanistan.”
So, that explained why the Candlewind was such a key piece to his operation. It might not be efficient, but it helped him sell his lies to the people he took away. To their loved ones.
“That’s the reality that shapes the world you live in. The ugly scaffolding that holds up your little stage play of life. You’ve heard of real politik? This is just real economik.” I could basically hear him smiling to himself at that statement, proud of his wit.
I took a risk, “If that’s the case, why take Moog and Sondra? Why take them? And Alice?” I was met with a kick to my thigh that made me lose balance, but he held my face firm against the table until my neck twisted painfully. I tried to distract myself from the pain by focusing on the items on his desk.
“I said no interrupting,” he sighed. “Really, though, I should be thanking you.” He continued “Without you, I might not have discovered my wife’s newfound morality. She never asked questions about where things came from. The fast cars, pretty clothes. She had a wild appetite and I was more than happy to feed it. Never once did she stop and wonder how it was being paid for. Ironically, she was smart in her decision to stay ignorant.”
I was still trying to keep my attention on his desk. It was actually quite cluttered. I also started to notice some of the papers that were scattered around. Some were standard business documents. Invoices, bills, mail.
“Unfortunately, she didn’t stay smart. Omaha’s too big of a trafficking hub for the topic not to come up around town. Eventually, she figured out that we were a part of it. Still, she never said anything to me about it. It wasn’t until you showed up that she revealed her hand. Or maybe it was just convenient timing, maybe she was planning to leave that day anyway, and you showed up just in time for her to reinforce her plan.” He chuckled, “Alice always loved dragging other people into her messes. Just ask your girlfriend, Elise. Alice basically had the poor girl on a leash, bringing her along into trouble. Strangest sister relationship.”
Sisters? Elise hadn’t mentioned that part. No wonder she was so determined, past the point of reason, to get Alice back. Why would she hide fact that from me?
I wanted to dwell on that thought some more, but my eyes found something important that stole my attention. Right there, a note poking out between two sheets of paper. It was on the other side of the table, I had to strain my eyes to catch it. My head started to hurt from the effort, but I could just start to make it out. Did it say what I thought it said?
“On top of that, without you I never would have found your buddies Moog and Sondra. At first, I thought you and them were part of a big elaborate plot to expose me,”
It did say what I thought. No way. No way no waynoway.
“But, turns out you were just a bunch of idiots in the wrong place. Too late for your friends, though. I have uses for them.”
I wanted to fight him, strangle him, or at least provoke him into telling me more. Moog and Sondra? I wanted to scream at him, ‘Just let them go, they have no idea about any of this!’ But I didn’t. Because the note I was reading was far too important. It was short, but I read it over and over and over and over again. I had to memorize it perfectly. His terrible handwriting made it difficult, though. Memory is both a precious and a cruel thing, reader. But this was too big, I had to remember what was on that note. I blocked out as much as I could and just recited the note in my head on an endless loop.
“You, though, I have no uses for. I could try to traffic you, give you a taste of the real world, but I just don’t like you. I want you out of my mind entirely. I have a feeling that if I add you to my organization, you’ll just cause me stress and annoyance that I don’t need. You’re not worth the trouble. And you have nothing on me. In fact, feel free to go to the police. It’ll just keep them occupied in places I no longer care about. Honestly, I don’t even want the Candlewind anymore. It was useful, a flashy gimmick that promoted my brand and distracted both my clients and prospective workers. But it’s time I moved on to something more efficient.” He picked up my head by the hair and slammed me back down on the desk, “Hey, kid, are you even listening?”
I wasn’t. I was too busy singing a made up song composed of the two short lines scrawled on his note. Don’t forget it, don’t forget it.
“I’m saying I’m going to let you go. And you can even take that damn balloon. I’m being gracious. Thank me.” His voice shifted from condescending diatribe to flat impatience. It didn’t matter. I closed my eyes and recited the note to myself, then opened them to make sure I got it all correct.
“Thank you,” I mumbled. You helped me more than you know.
He released my head from his desk and shoved me towards his office door. My back was facing him but a sixth sense told me that the gun in his other hand was still aimed straight at me.
“Keep your hands up, stay facing the door.” I heard him push a button on his phone, “Someone will show you out. Remember what I said, kid, it’s just economics. I’m no more a bad guy than anyone else. Cut your losses and be grateful I’m letting you go. Killing you and your friends isn’t worth the effort it’ll take to hide it, but I swear, I’ll do it with pleasure if I see you, that balloon, or any of your little friends again. I’ll even make Alice watch.”
Oh, I’ll remember all right. Not to what you said, though. What you wrote.
On cue, the same two guards walked in, grabbed me by each arm and half walked, half dragged me through the building to the front entrance, and let me go.
“Jeez, are you sure you’re okay?” Elise examined the swelling around my left eye. Isaac slammed me on his desk harder than I thought.
We were in a new meeting spot. As soon as I was kicked out of the building, I bee-lined to where I knew Elise and Laurents were, then told them, “We gotta go.” Laurents immediately understood and led us through a maze of streets and crowds and parks until I had no idea where we’d ended up, let alone anyone who might have been following us. I wasn’t even sure if we were in La Paz anymore.
Satisfied that we were as safe as could be, Laurents finally brought us to a stop on a bustling city street. We didn’t bother going into a cafe or a restaurant. He just sat us down on a set of dirty stairs in an alley and we blended in with the invisible impoverished class. It was easy to do considering how tired and ragged we looked and felt.
That’s when I explained to them everything that had happened.
“Then…what, that’s it? We’re done?” confused, Elise looked to Laurents.
This was the first time I’d seen him look defeated, “Everything we’ve done up to this point is useless,” he shrugged. “I don’t see another play, here.”
It hurt to smile thanks to the new bruises on my face, but I worked through it. I couldn’t help it. “But we do have another play.”
Elise shook her head, “No, look at you. You could’ve died. We just have to go to the police now. We tri-“
“Let him finish, Pia,” Laurents turned his eyes to me, curiosity peeking through the seriousness.
My smile broke into a chuckle and I realized my ribs hurt as much as my face, “Well, in all his lecturing, I did learn one important thing about the world.”
Laurents curiosity faded but I just closed my eyes and recited verbatim the two scribbled lines I saw on that note in his office:
I opened my eyes and found them both staring at me as though I were having a stroke. “That’s what I learned. Never write down your email login.”
Check back in two more weeks (give or take a week…) for more!